The GM salmon saga

February 2012

salmon head
Photo by She Paused 4 Thought on Flickr
Anyone who's been following the GM food issue will be aware of periodic headlines announcing that GM salmon is about to hit shop shelves in the US at any time now ...

These 'novel' fish have been under development since the 1990s, so where are they?

Pig feeding study not reassuring

February 2012

Amidst the dearth of animal feeding studies actually designed to assess the safety of GM food, a paper has at last been published which is like a breath of fresh air. The study is relevant to humans; it recognises and minimises confounding factors in the experimental materials; it examines specifically the organs which will be affected directly by toxic qualities in food; and it acknowledges its own limitations.

Pigs are a very good model for humans because their digestive system is very similar. During the first few weeks after weaning, piglets grow fast and so react quickly to dietary influences. A team of Irish scientists took advantage of these characteristics to carry out a study of the effects of consuming 'Bt' insecticidal maize, MON 810.

Happenings in America

February 2012

Photo from Wikimedia Commons
While in Europe, BASF and Monsanto were throwing in the GM towel (see HAPPENINGS IN FRANCE and HAPPENINGS IN GERMANY - February 2012), on the other side of the pond, regulators have been very busy smoothing the GM path.

Goaded by mounting pressure from the biotech industry and its allies to speed up GM approvals, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is working on plans to “streamline” the process. The USDA's problem is that GM crop producers are demanding that it get moving to deregulate the backlog of pending petitions for their GM seed, but the law is demanding that it consider the environment before it does so.

Honeybees and toxic GM seeds

February 2012

Furry Bee
Bee on clover. Photo by Guerito on Flickr
Honeybee populations have been in serious decline for years: not just a few deaths here and there, but total annihilation of entire colonies. Many possible causes have been put forward, but none has been able to explain the huge scale of the collapse.

The most rational explanation, as one insect specialist recently described it is that the modern world is subjecting bees to “death by a thousand cuts”. These cuts range from disorientation induced by mobile phone masts, to parasitic and other diseases, to chemical poisoning. Whereas the mobile phone masts are localised and stay that way, and treatments for identified pathogens can be developed, chemicals are another matter: they are ubiquitous, mobile, infinitely varied, and toxicologically interactive.

Amidst the rising concern about the extent of chemical contamination of our environment, one of the most frequently touted benefits of GM crops is that they reduce chemical pesticide use. This is good PR used to present major commodity crops such as corn into a 'green' option.

In reality, these crops only produce artificial 'Bt' insecticides against a limited number of pests. The remaining insects which attack the crops are not well controlled by Bt. To overcome this, and perpetuate the myth the Bt crops use less pesticide treatments, virtually all corn seed is now doused in 'neonicotinoids', synthetic derivatives of nicotine which kill insects by attacking the nervous system.

Happenings in Germany

February 2012

Potato Farm
Potato field in Sweden. Photo by Skånska Matupplevelser on Flickr
German biotech giant, BASF, has announced its intention to halt development and commercialisation of all GM seeds targeted solely for cultivation in Europe.

The company's reason was:
“there is still a lack of acceptance for this technology in many parts of Europe - from the majority of consumers, farmers and politicians. Therefore, it does not make business sense to continue investing in products exclusively for cultivation in this market”.
BASF intends to:
 “concentrate on the attractive markets for plant biotechnology in North And South America and the growth markets in Asia”.

Happenings in France

February 2012

Maize field in France. Picture by Lucy.Bold on Flickr
The European Union has approved for cultivation only one GM crop specifically designed to enter the human food chain. This is Monsanto's MON 810 maize which has a bacterial gene inserted to produce 'Cry1Ab' insecticidal protein, and is used for animal feed.

The crop has a checkered history in Europe. Spain is the only country in which the maize has been planted on any scale, and Germany, Greece, Hungary, Luxembourg and Hungary have banned it. The situation recently became further complicated by a European Court of Justice ruling that honey contaminated by GM pollen must be fully authorised as a novel product and labelled as such before it can be sold here.

Unforeseen circumstances of GM cotton in India

February 2012

IN066S08 World Bank
Harvesting cotton. India.
Photo: © Ray Witlin / World Bank published on Flickr
'Bt' cotton, genetically transformed to generate its own insecticide against American bollworm, has been grown in India since 2003. The authorities there encouraged farmers to buy Bt cotton seed with promises of huge yields, a dramatic halving of expenditure on pesticides, and great profits, despite the high price of the GM seed. Initial resistance was overcome by aggressive marketing, and GM cotton now comprises more than 90% of the crop. Production has tripled, making India a net exporter and second largest world supplier of cotton.

However, the reality of growing Bt cotton with inbuilt machinery to kill its number-one enemy is proving fraught with “unforeseen circumstances”.

While productivity (lint produced per hectare) increased by 74% between 2002 and 2009, the levels are low compared to the world average.

One unforeseen shortcoming has been that if a Bt cotton crop fails, it is a total failure and financial disaster for the grower. As one farmer explained it: 
“With our native species, even if flowering failed due to excessive rain in the first half of the season, we would still manage at least some yield since the plants flower again. Bt cotton flowers once and any failure means re-sowing the expensive Rs1,200-a-packet seeds”.

Where does all the glyphosate go?

February 2012

Spraying crops in the evening dusk
Crop spraying. Photo by TaminaMiller on Flickr
“I think people haven't even thought or even looked at (glyphosate), because the advertising says it's such a safe product. Why do we even do the research?” (Dr. Don Huber)
Nearly four decades after the herbicide, glyphosate, first began to be sprayed on our environment, the search is still on for a fast, sensitive, reliable and accurate technique to measure it, even in water.

Glyphosate is the active ingredient of 'Roundup' herbicide now used on many Roundup-tolerant GM monocultures such as soya and maize.

This weed-killer is a challenging compound to detect because it can't be easily isolated from its background: glyphosate is a small molecule, highly soluble in water, it can behave as an acid or as a base (i.e. the distinctive properties often exploited to measure chemicals), and readily sticks to certain common materials such as metal ions and soil particles.